Let's Normalize Admitting When We Don’t Know Enough To Engage In A Debate

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Let's Normalize Admitting When We Don’t Know Enough To Engage In A Debate
Scary Mommy and Fanatic Studio/Gary Waters/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty

Last month, I drove with my kids up to my sister’s house for a visit. (We had all been social distancing for months; risk was negligible.) At one point during the visit, we got to talking about politics. For many families, this might be like walking into a field full of landmines. But I don’t mind talking politics with my sister and brother-in-law. It’s not because we’re able to have “respectful conversations” or “agree to disagree,” though we always do the former and often do the latter. It’s that we share a core belief in the non-negotiability of certain fundamental human rights. When this is established, debating does not feel threatening.

At one point, my brother-in-law brought up a topic I didn’t know much about. Something to do with the Chinese NBA and LeBron James’s involvement in it. My brother-in-law felt that James could have done more to publicly condemn the way the Chinese government was dealing with protestors in Hong Kong.

At the time of the conversation, here is what I knew about LeBron James and China: I’d seen in my news feed that LeBron James is supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, donates a ton to various causes, and built a school in the Midwest. I knew from a podcast I’d listened to that China was in the process of gradually assuming control of Hong Kong after years of being a British territory, and that there had been protests. That was the entire extent of my knowledge.

When my brother-in-law started talking about it, I tried to engage with him in the conversation. My initial reaction was to defend James because I was aware of the humanitarian work he does and because many people I respect also respect James. I quickly realized though, I didn’t have enough information to debate that viewpoint. I had to shrug my shoulders and admit I just didn’t know.

I thought about that conversation a lot afterward, how I had to check myself and simply stop talking. I hated that feeling—not knowing. I like knowing what’s going on, locally, nationally, globally. I pride myself on being aware and keeping up on the news. It made me feel small, and even a little ashamed, to admit I didn’t know enough to defend my gut reaction. In that moment, it didn’t matter that I know a lot about a lot; I felt obligated to know everything about everything.

Analyzing my absurd reaction (of course no one can know everything about everything) made me think of all the times I’ve heard and seen people debating a topic on which they obviously know very little, or nothing. Everywhere we look, we see armchair epidemiologists, armchair sociologists, armchair doctors, armchair teachers, armchair lawyers, armchair political analysts, armchair presidents…

Why is this? Is there something particular about American culture that makes us think that we are supposed to be experts in all things? That we must have an opinion on everything and must shout loudly about those opinions? Is this a manifestation of American arrogance? Or is this part of the general human condition? Maybe human beings just like to feel like they know what they’re talking about, even if it means faking it.


That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if “faking it” didn’t spread dangerous misinformation across the worldwide web. How many pseudo doctors or even just ordinary citizens have created long ranting posts wherein the conclusions they’ve drawn stem only from their own fledgling thoughts about a topic and not from a single reputable source? We’ve all seen these damaging posts go viral. We’ve seen the masses of the uninformed piling on in the comment threads like vultures to a carcass, practically frothing at the mouth with glee at the prospect of having their half-baked ideas validated by other people’s half-baked ideas.

Could we maybe stop doing this?

What if we all agreed to stop pretending we know everything? What if we made it trendy to say, “I don’t have enough information to debate with you, so let me do some research and we can revisit this topic another time.”

What if we started demanding accountability when people claim they know what they’re talking about? If someone claims expertise in a topic, or even claims to have a solid opinion on it, ask them where they got their information. Ask them for their source. If they can’t provide one, let them know you can’t take them seriously, and explain why.

And if someone actually does have sources, take those and read them with an open mind. Anybody who has studied debate knows that you have to be as familiar with the opposition’s viewpoint as well as you are with your own. How can you debate effectively if you don’t understand the points you’re refuting? Try to understand the other side of an issue. Not only is it okay to admit when we don’t know, but it’s also okay to admit when we’re (gasp!) wrong.

World news used to be limited to a segment that followed our national news, playing at a time of night when most of us elected to go to bed instead of stay and listen. Now, we are flooded with international news at every minute of the day, and on top of that we’re flooded with everyone’s opinion on it. Somehow we have decided that everyone is supposed to have an opinion on every topic.

This isn’t even logistically attainable. The majority of us work full-time jobs and have obligations that keep our minds and bodies too busy to sit and educate ourselves on every topic that exists. It simply isn’t possible to be an expert in all things.

So let’s make it trendy to admit what we don’t know. Let’s make it cool to sit back, read, and observe rather than feel the need to vomit our opinion into every comment thread that scrolls past our eyeballs. There is already too much noise out there, and not nearly enough listening. It really is okay to admit when we simply don’t know.

For what it’s worth, I looked up the situation with LeBron James and China. After researching, I have chosen to stick with my initial reaction. The difference is, now I can tell you why.

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